Britain is giving its vaunted special forces a special job: fighting little green men, gray wars and black ops.
All these colors belong to Russia’s “hybrid warfare” strategy, which eschews massive military force in favor of more subtle means such as political manipulation, cyberwarfare and special forces operating incognito (the “little green men” in unmarked uniforms that spearheaded the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014).
So, Britain plans to fight fire with fire by using its own special operators. “The plan is called 'Special Operations Concept' and has been drawn up by the senior officer in charge of the special forces, the Director Special Forces (DSF),” says the BBC. “According to people familiar with what's in it, part of the concept involves changing both the structure of the military's secretive units and what they do.”
Sources told the BBC that the plan is being studied by the British military, before being submitted to political leaders. The idea is to use the special forces when conventional troops are unsuitable.
“For example, under the new plan, an operation might be mounted in a Baltic republic or African country in order to uncover and pinpoint Russian covert activities,” the BBC says. “Then a decision would be made as to whether to make public what had been learned, or to cooperate secretly with local security forces in order to disrupt it. The new missions would take UKSF units in a less ‘kinetic’ or violent direction - after almost 20 years of man-hunting strike missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan – and into closer cooperation with allied intelligence agencies and MI6 [British intelligence].”
The core of Britain’s special forces is the Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, the Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), which carries out covert surveillance. The SRR’s mission would expand under the new plan.
Like the United States, the British military is struggling with how to defeat “gray war,” that nebulous state between overt conflicts such as World War II or the Vietnam War, but also more violent than peaceful rivalry between nations. In Russia’s case, gray war means sending troops to support separatists in Ukraine, unleashing hackers to steal secrets or disrupt an adversary’s economy, or using social media to manipulate elections as occurred in the United States in 2016.
Responding to gray war is difficult: conventional conflicts can be settled by troops or air strikes, but how does one unleash tanks or smart bombs against hackers and Facebook trolls? “Military chiefs believe Russia has been using its military intelligence arm, the GRU, effectively in Ukraine, Syria and Africa,” the BBC said.
“Right now, you do nothing or you escalate,’" a senior officer told the BBC. "’We want to expand that competitive space.’"
Interestingly, the BBC also suggested that the new mission might spare British special forces from a budgetary axe that has relentlessly whittled down the British armed forces. “Following the defeat of the last pocket of Islamic State group, missions in Syria and Iraq are declining. And so in staking out new territory, the DSF seems to be trying to give new priorities to the units under their command at a time of financial stringency.”